coconut recollection

those good ole’ coconut buns from our childhood are a rarity these days but you can count on ban guan foong bakery to keep rolling out fresh loaves, as they have for more than five decades now.

there are no shops, restaurants or kopitiams in its immediate vicinity. not that you’d expect there to be any for at a glance, the single-storey wooden structure, its facade painted a pastel green, blends right in with its neighbouring chinese new village homes. a peek inside reveals a living room-like area that could well belong in any malaysian chinese home: vintage marble armchairs settled around a round table with a marble top in front of a cabinet supporting a prayer altar. at the same time, there are few indications that this is not a typical residential: the folding doors, the occasional car or motorcycle that pulls up to its porch in the late afternoons only to leave a short while later. if you look carefully, these transient visitors never leave without a plastic bag (or bags) in hand, filled with baked goods that they will enjoy later that evening or more likely, the next morning at breakfast.

for over 50 years now, ban guan foong bakery has been faithfully feeding ipoh folks with their traditional hainanese loaves and coconut buns, both evergreen favourites that have long been weaved into the fabric of traditional malaysian cuisine. and yes, this old school bakery only bakes and sells these two types of breads. on the wall, the ‘menu’ lists them simply as ‘big bread’ and ‘small bread’.

the former are loved for their dry, thick crusts and chewy texture, great for dipping into freshly brewed kopi o or a chunky curry. malaysians who grew up in the 1980s or earlier would remember the latter well, a childfood favourite that was just as popular among older folks as they’re wholesome, filling and easy to digest. these square buns are similar in texture to the hainanese breads, and are filled with desiccated coconut cooked in brown sugar.

biting into either, or both, of ban guan foong’s offerings and you’ll take one step back in time.

 

50 jalan sultan, pasir pinji, ipoh tel +605 321 3891 opens from 6pm, mon-fri; from 2pm, sun; closed sat

 

stuffed sensations

sweet, crunchy goodness under a big shady tree.

 

there’s yong tau foo and when in ipoh, there’s big tree yong tau foo. a pasir pinji stalwart and a local institution since the 1970s, its easy-to-remember moniker is also a great visual marker when you’re in the area. just look for the big, tall, shady tree with a cluster of zinc-roofed food stalls underneath it. big tree’s neighbouring stalls sell a variety of local favourites such as rojak (we love it for the super crunchy kyuri that takes the place of the usual local cucumber), popiah, satay and iced desserts.

still, it’s big big tree’s deep-fried, pork and fish paste-filled delights (locals call them kap liew) that draw the hungriest crowds and what a spread they get to choose from: beancurd skin, brinjal, bitter gourd, tofu, chilli, long beans, okra, yow char kuai (dough cruellers)...

the one that you must not miss is the flat disc-shaped sar kot liew, slabs of chopped jicama or yam bean with a thin beancurd skin. fried to a golden brown, you can enjoy it on its own or accompanied by noodles that you can order from the same stall. we usually skip the noodles and ask for a big bowl of their steaming, aromatic curry broth to dunk our favourite treat into. the combination of the sweet and crunchy sar kot liew with the unctuous, santan-rich spicy soup is just heavenly.

 

652 jalan king, pasir pinji, ipoh opens 8.30am-5.30pm daily

cake boss

a multitude of vibrant colours, natural textures and familiar sweet flavours take shape, by hand and using traditional recipes, at pusat kuih and kek khoo eng chee six days a week.

 wobbly and pink. layers of pandan green over milky santan. sunshine yellow slices with a caramelised skin. sticky rectangular cakes with a swirly blue marble effect. bowls of dark, brownish red puddings studded with beans. translucent green balls, their chocolate-toned filling showing up faintly through, rolled in pans of flour. golden brown fritters and puffs in a variety of shapes. large ‘cupcakes’ in pink and yellow.  glutinous orbs the shade of lavender rolled up in pandan leaf cones.

for nyonya kuih lovers, pusat kuih dan kek khoo eng chee is the name to worship for their smorgasbord of traditional sweet cakes that are all handmade (and mostly steamed) at their shop in pasir pinji. for more than 20 years now, this family-owned business has been supplying kuihs to distributors around ipoh, besides selling direct from their shop.

their candy-toned creations are spread out over several large tables and it seems that any time of the day, there will be a line of customers waiting to get their sweet tooth satisfied. and these are no small-time buyers; it is common to watch orders of tens of pieces being packed into containers fashioned out of food cartons, lined with plastic sheets. needless to say, the kuihs disappear almost just as quickly as fresh batches appear from the back of the shop, where you can observe them taking shape.

we tried about 10 varieties of their offerings and they were mostly hits. the bingka ubi is particularly recommended: soft, moist and fibrous, which is a good sign of its pure ingredients, and is not too sweet. the hardened bottom layer provides textural balance while the caramelised top adds to its aroma. the kuih kochi, on the other hand, was a letdown with its mushy skin but the coconut filling tasted fresh and well flavoured.

besides the pretty steamed kuihs and fritters, they also make and sell old-school baked cakes and pastries such as chiffon and marble cakes, egg tarts and mini egg cake (kai tan kuin).

 

44 jalan tokong, pasir pinji, ipoh opens 8am-8pm, mon-sat; closed sun

spicy, sublime satisfaction

curry laksa, when done properly like sun kee’s, is manna from culinary heaven.

 

first, the colour: a milky orange, with a thin layer of fiery chilli oil pooling on the surface. secondly, the aroma: a potent, well-blended mix of curry leaves, chillies and five spice powder wafting along with the steam. thirdly, the presentation: slivers of roast pork sit half submerged in the soup, underneath which oodles of yellow noodles peek through, and garnished with a bunch of fresh mint leaves and half a juicy lime.

sun kee pure nyonya curry laksa tastes every bit as scrumptious and satisfying as it looks, every mouthful of the strong soup chocked full of savoury curry goodness with a good level of heat that warms the throat without setting it on fire. a squeeze of the lime gave it a zesty lift and enhanced the rich spice tones. the siew yoke is tender where it needs to be without being cloyed by the fat layers while the crackling maintained a good level of crunch, considering they had have a good soak in the soup. the other protein is provided by juicy, slightly bloody cockles whereas vegetables take the form of properly fat bean sprouts – the only way ipoh taugeh are. Well, there you have it – heaven in a plastic orange bowl.

 

thim sun loong kopitiam, 22-36 jalan peh kee koh, taman kampar, ipoh opens around 4pm onwards

on a roll

paper thin is out, bring on the chewy and sturdy. popiah skin, that is.

 

a good popiah skin should be paper thin, almost opaque even, and should have a dry, slightly coarse texture. when filled and rolled up, the popiah needs to be handled with care and eaten as soon as possible before the jicama broth and sauces seep through the porous skin.

we thought we knew everything about a good popiah until we tried this version at thim sun loong kopitiam in ipoh, near pasir pinji, where sun kee nyonya curry laksa reigns supreme. the popiah at this corner coffeeshop surprised us in the most delightful way. the skin was stretchy, chewy and thicker than our (now former) benchmark of what a good version should be. at first bite, we were ready to give it the thumbs down but then as we bit into the generous filling, we had serious second thoughts. the jicama was well flavoured and judging from how tender the strips are, have undergone the necessary braise time.

besides the usual accompaniments the likes of minced fried tofu, cucumber and lettuce, there were also finely chopped up hehbi. slightly spicy, they tempered the soft texture of the other ingredients with a lovely crunch – something a certain mall-based chain of popiah stalls does with fried bits of flour, which we consider a cop out. using hehbi, on the other hand, not only impart that gratifying crispness but also add to the taste profile.

not able to finish them at one sitting (thanks to bellies full of the curry laksa!) we packed the leftovers to sup on much later and the ‘tough’ skin proved its mettle. it not only held its neat, compactly-packed shape well but more importantly, did not suffer what other popiahs would surely have after so long: sogginess. instead, the ingredients stayed moist (the hehbi did get a bit damp) as the liquids did not seep through the skin. we’d like all our popiahs to be made this way from now on.

 

thim sun loong kopitiam, 22-36 jalan peh kee koh, taman kampar, ipoh opens around 4pm onwards